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LOS ANGELES TIMES / INTERVIEW : SPECIAL REPORT / ON THE STATE OF HUMAN RIGHTS : The Two Sides of Humanity : Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia : Defending the Human Rights of Gypsies and Europe’s Oppressed

Since the collapse of Soviet power, the protection of minority rights in Europe has risen to near the top of the European Community’s agenda. The civil wars in Yugoslavia and in some former Soviet republics, the wave of violence against foreigners in Germany, especially in former East Germany, the electoral success of far-right parties in Belgium and France, the trend toward racism among football hooligans and other violent youths--all have contributed to a deep feeling of unease. The downturn in the European economy--unemployment rates surpass 10% in most countries and 40% in regions of Eastern Europe--and the presence of large numbers of immigrants legally living in Western Europe have added fuel to the discontent.

In the advance party of the migration to more prosperous areas have been the Gypsies of Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, who come legally, as asylum-seekers, and illegally, as clandestine border-crossers. Though most new migrants are concentrated in Germany, there is hardly a European city that has not seen Gypsy bands arriving in broken-down cars. Many take up traditional Gypsy pursuits--selling flowers, telling fortunes, playing music on the street, begging or enlivening late-night cafes with their violins. Some of the new arrivals are accused of picking pockets, shoplifting and, in farming country, raiding barns and orchards in what is called “subsistence theft.”

Since they first arrived in Western Europe from India in the 15th Century, Gypsies have been the object of suspicion, intolerance and, often, vicious persecution. In many ways, anti-Gypsy measures paralleled the persecutions and pogroms against Jews. Gypsies were the first ethnic group selected by Nazis for genocide, and the Nazis pursued them as fanatically as they did the Jews. They probably lost a higher percentage of their overall numbers than any group targeted by the Nazis. Estimates of the number of Gypsies killed in the Nazi genocide range from 250,000 to 500,000, out of a total population of 885,000 European Gypsies in 1939.

To Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia, a Spanish Gypsy, memories of those days of terror have been revived by the recent attacks on foreigners, including Gypsies, in Germany. A Socialist, he has been a member of the European Parliament since 1986 and sits on some of its most important committees. He spends three working weeks a month in Brussels for hearings and negotiations and the fourth week at the Parliament’s monthly sessions in Strasbourg, France.

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Ramirez Heredia, 50, was born of a poor Gypsy family in Puerto Real, near Cadiz. He spent his early childhood on the streets, but, at age 12, he was admitted to a free school run by the Salesian priests. That changed the course of his life. He became a primary-school teacher, then earned a degree at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, majoring in journalism and communication. In his political career, he has kept the well-being of his people foremost (there are estimated to be 3 million Gypsies in Western Europe today) and is a co-founder of the Romany Union (World Confederation of Gypsies). He has translated the Spanish Constitution into Romany, the language of many Gypsies, and likes to give visitors to his office in the Parliament his translation into Romany of the Helsinki Final Act establishing human-rights norms.

Ramirez Heredia is much admired in the Parliament for his eloquence. He travels everywhere with his portable computer, which is programmed with a Romany dictionary, drafts of books and reports he is writing concerning Parliamentary business.

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Q uestion : As a member of the European Parliament committee on civil liberties, how would you assess the situation of minorities today, both your own people and others who, historically, have been persecuted?

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Answer: The situation is much graver now than it has been in many years. The reason is fundamental: When the world is suffering economic hard times, the weakest groups, the ones least capable of defending themselves, suffer the most. Europe and the world, including the United States, are going through a moment of great economic difficulty. The problems of these periods create sentiments of racism, xenophobia, intolerance and violence against the weaker. Those Paul L. Montgomery is an American journalist based in Brussels. He interviewed Ramirez Heredia between parliamentary committee sessions.

who have less capacity to defend themselves, because they have no political power, or very little political power, in the countries where they are, suffer the consequences of marginalization.

Q: Do you think the human-rights situation is better in some countries than in others?

A: Without a doubt, in some places in Europe intolerance is much harder and crueler. Even within some countries and regions, there are zones where minorities are treated with consideration, and other zones where they are treated with less consideration, or even indifference. There are peoples who are set apart by their combative attitude toward minorities, while others are distinguished by a more welcoming attitude. In saying this, I want to make it clear that I refuse to put on the shoulders of any people any stereotype, because that often marks these people for all their lives. The Gypsy people had to exert a tremendous historical force to get rid of the stereotypes about them, because there were many who considered all of us thieves or vagrants or liars. There is much hard work in overcoming such lack of understanding.

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At this time, there is no question that the greatest number of instances of intolerance, at least on the public level, are in those countries on the frontier with Eastern Europe, where the walls came down; now those seeking freedom want to incorporate themselves into countries that are more prosperous, and many times they come directly against the barrier of racism and intolerance.

Q: Do you think the Germans, as a people, are by their culture more insensitive to minority rights than others, or is it a case of the current economic situation?

A: I insist on what I said before. I know hundreds of Germans who are marvelous people, absolutely compassionate toward the weakest, and who fight against racism and for democracy. At the least, the (German) members of my party, whom I know well and meet with often, are fighting for the same things that I am fighting for.

Sadly, Germany has had to wash away for many years the image of a country that was truly horrible. This belongs to the recent past, but it is the past. It is not fair in this time--1993--to identify a past of repression and ignominy and crimes against humanity with the German people who are there now. But I have to admit that when one sees on television or in the newspapers the pictures of those young men, neo-Nazis, covered with swastikas that recall the horrors of the past, it makes our blood run cold.

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Q: Is immigration the principal reason for the current wave of racism, or the depressed economy, or all factors together?

A: Both things are causes, both things . . . A while ago, I read a study, by a professor at the University of Barcelona, that tried to get to the causes of racism. This intellectual tried to graph the influence of the economy and of the movements of people on this ill of society. His conclusion was that racism arose when men and women felt frustrated within themselves, (felt) dissatisfaction with their work or their professions, their love lives or their relationships, even their own sexual capacity--when a human being experiences many frustrations of this kind, these come together to create a climate of violence and intolerance against those who have another color or another culture. It is personal frustration that leads to prejudice and denigration of others.

Q: Is the wave of nationalism and resurgent ethnic identity in Eastern Europe a deterrent to better human relations, or does it increase the chances of people having to find a way of living peacefully together?

A: I believe that nationalism is exclusionary, and like all exclusionary sentiments, it puts up defenses against the differences of others. In this sense, it is dangerous. When nationalisms arise that are fundamentally political rather than cultural, when they are defending artificial differences, they bring in their wake wars and confrontations and pain for humanity.

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However, it is important not to confuse the nationalism that leads to the tragedy of war . . . with the legitimate right of peoples to defend their own identities. There is a right to be different, to defend a common history and a common tradition, a common language and a common culture. This is an attitude that deserves the respect and the understanding of the majority peoples.

Q: Do you think there is a danger that a new fascism could arise in Europe now?

A: Honestly, I don’t think so. In the Parliament, there are very few who defend militarism or authoritarianism or who try to undermine democracy. Mostly they are Mr. Le Pen and his few supporters. (Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s extremist National Front, is a member of the European Parliament, as is Karel Dillen, the leader of the Vlaams Blok, a similar anti-immigrant extremist group in Belgium. Ramirez Heredia was one of the leaders of a movement to lift Le Pen’s parliamentary immunity after he made remarks casting doubt on the reality of the Holocaust.)

Q: What are your personal feelings about Le Pen?

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A: I long ago absorbed Voltaire’s message: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But I condemn Le Pen for what he said--and I curse him. May the memory of all those innocent victims haunt his consciousness. May the tears of all those orphans fall on his soul. May the cries of the mothers whose children were torn from them for cruel medical experiments claw at his entrails. May the shades of the old people who ended their days in the crematory ovens appear before him always.

Q: The United Nations is holding a World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June, the first such gathering since 1968. Do you think there is need of any more manifestoes and declarations?

A: Look, concretely, to speak of the Gypsy people, or of any minority people, there is nothing better to say than has already been said in Copenhagen and Helsinki, in the conclusions of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. There is never enough of saying these things, but I think the moment has arrived to convert the words into deeds. What is really necessary is the political will to carry through what has already been decided.


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